The iPhone(s appl) rumor cycle continues to press forward with the momentum of a freight train. On Monday, we got a first look at what appears to be the sapphire screen covering for the next generation of iPhones, expected to be launched this fall. The latest leak comes from Nowhereelse.fr, a French blog which has been one of the leaders in parts leaks this cycle.
It’s been expected that Apple was going to be dropping its customary iPhone glass, Corning’s(s glw) Gorilla Glass, in favor of a relatively new product, “sapphire glass,” produced by GT Advanced Technology(s gtat). In November 2013, Apple and GT agreed to a $578 million deal where Apple would fund the construction of a Mesa, Arizona plant operated by GT in exchange for certain capacity and exclusivity considerations. Apple’s investment in the plant was confirmed by CEO Tim Cook in an interview on ABC News.
Because of the Mesa deal, subsequent rumors pointed to Apple gearing up to put sapphire displays on up to 200 million iPhones. That’s a lot of glass! But looking at the flexibility of sapphire glass in the videos, Apple’s wearable device for the wrist rumored to launch this fall also springs to mind. That device has been tipped to come with a curved screen, and the flexibility of scratch-resistant sapphire glass could make it a logical fit for Apple’s watch face. Given Apple’s repeated investment in the technology, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if the iWatch had a sapphire glass component. It would also line up with remarks made by Cook about the Mesa plant creating an “ecosystem.”
As reported previously by Gigaom, sapphire glass has an interesting past rooted in solar technology. The manufacturing tech needed for sapphire — the Hyperion ion cutter — was first developed by Twin Creeks Technology, a cleantech startup which was eventually sold at a loss to solar giant GT Advanced Technology. This history has led some to speculate that Apple could conceivably integrate solar panels into an iPhone.
The advantages of sapphire glass are still debatable. It is probably more scratch-resistant than chemically treated conventional glass, but how much more expensive or energy-intensive it is to produce is still being debated. Corning, for its part, is trying to downplay the threat of Sapphire to its smartphone business. According to a Q&A it put out in May 2013, Sapphire is more scratch-resistant than Gorilla Glass, but is also significantly heavier and more expensive:
It is unclear if sapphire can compete with Gorilla Glass. Sapphire certainly is hard – harder to scratch than Gorilla Glass – but transmits about six percentage points less light and may introduce optical distortions. Sapphire is also 67 percent heavier than Gorilla Glass per unit volume, difficult to process (especially at the thinness of Gorilla Glass) and costs significantly more to produce.
Of course, as with all parts leaks, take these with a grain of salt: Although Nowhereelse.fr has obtained genuine pre-release parts in the past, that doesn’t guarantee future accuracy. Australian blogger Sonny Dickson — who has a pretty good track record — gave the leak a co-sign, slapping a watermark on part of the video and claiming it as his own. Of course, it’s unclear how French and Australian bloggers obtained parts presumably manufactured in the United States.
Apple currently uses sapphire glass as to protect the rear camera lens of the iPhone, as well as on the TouchID sensor on the iPhone 5s. Apple doesn’t specify where it gets its glass for the iPhone screen from, but it is widely believed to be Gorilla Glass.